In the international espionage thriller “Safe House,” Daniel Espinoza directs Denzel Washington as a rogue operative who gains possession of extremely sensitive information, and has to seek protection from his former agency to buy himself time to figure out how to use it. Ryan Reynolds co-stars as a low-level agent who gets dragged from his menial tasks as a “housekeeper” in to a dangerous chase to protect his “guest” from the forces that want him dead, and himself from his “guest”
IFC had the opportunity to speak with Espinosa about making his first American industry film following the success of his Swedish crime thriller, “Easy Money,” what it was like to develop these characters, his approach to making the movie and how he feels the core story in “Safe House” is relevant to our current political climate.
What initially interested you in the script for “Safe House”? Was it the action, or exploring the world of espionage?
No, my Swedish movie before “Safe House” was a gangster movie and it was radically different than the movies I had done previously. It had a faster tempo, the plot structure was more dominating than the character structure. When I was asked to come over to the states, I thought to myself “what the Americans are very good at doing is creating stories with strong movement and plots that carry the movie as it goes along.” I thought it would be interesting to see what I could do with a conflict between two classic characters within the space of that strong movement. For me it was more about exploring that Master/Apprentice character story between Ryan and Denzel in combination with a very strong plot structure, because that’s the kind of movie you could never do in Europe.
While there is a lot of action, it is a very character driven film. Sometimes you’re not even sure who you should be cheering for because each side makes their own case. What kind of things did you do with the actors to build both their authority and that tension between them?
When it came to Ryan, in his earlier movies, he had almost a James Stewart quality to his work. Very intellectual, very talkative, very verbal and witty. I thought it would be interesting to make him play more silent, more observant of the circumstances around him so that we as an audience can relate to the events of the film through him. I always thought James Stewart’s most interesting work was his silent work, when he didn’t talk so much. I saw this opportunity to make this main character that is mostly silent in contrast to Denzel’s character who is very full-bodied. We worked a very long time on his character’s history and the kind of psychology Denzel’s character would use. Denzel’s character has this very pronounced, rich quality and is comfortable in this world, where Ryan’s character is very silent and bewildered by the situation he’s put in.
It’s that classical thing that you need a viewer of a situation to create dramatic tension and Ryan’s character is very much that.
Building on the topic of perspective, the film is shot in a style that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. You’re rarely watching things from a distance. Why did you take that approach?
I thought alot about the style of the movie. My first decision was to stay close to the style I’ve used in my previous movies in a way to maintain ownership of the feature. Not try to over-extend my reach because it’s my first American industry movie, and then I thought that kind of hand-held, realistic cinéma vérité style would be a nice addition to this genre. I thought about other movies that have used this approach, like Michael Mann’s “The Insider” that used the super-long lens, using a bit shaky-style. On the other hand you have movies like the “Bourne Trilogy,” and that uses a middle lens that creates a bit of objectivity that moves you closer to the characters. I thought it would be interesting to use an even wider lens to be really close to the characters, so you’re not observant at all, you’re a participant in the action that’s surrounding you.
That’s something that’s close to Alejandro González Iñárrit’s earlier work in “Amores Perros.” If you remember that car chase in “Amores Perros,” when they’re sitting in the car and the dog is dead in the back seat, and that car chase was reminiscent to “Reservoir Dogs” when Tim Roth is in the back seat and he’s bleeding to death. While part of it may have been because they didn’t have a lot of money for the scenes, what struck me is that the camera is mostly inside of the car. There are almost no external shots. So, I and my DP Oliver Wood looked at those car chases and said “This looks good, it looks fresh. It would be nice to do a big action movie that’s inspired by these independent films rather than ‘Fast Five’.”
“Safe House” maintains a very steady pace throughout the film. There are only a few moments when the characters, and the audience, get to pause and catch their breath. One scene in particular is when Denzel Washington makes a dramatic change to his physical appearance just by trimming his hair.
I love that scene, it’s one of my favorites. It’s nice and a bit odd, some of the producers didn’t like it because they felt it slowed the motion of the movie down.
It’s wild to watch Denzel Washington age himself backwards like that.
I’m telling you, when he did that it was so odd watching it because that’s really him shaving himself. He’d grown his hair and beard out and we rolled and he started cutting his hair and the whole set went completely silent as we watched him start to look like someone else. He was losing years as he went along without any make-up and that was a very unique experience.
While the action between Washington and Reynold’s characters is taking place in South Africa, the film has an a second theater of events taking place at the CIA headquarters. What was it like working on that set in contrast with the South Africa shoot?
It’s like you’re shooting something that’s very technocratic in a way. It’s like shooting a crime scene, there’s so much that is just clues and technical aspects. We worked to be true to how things are when people are under surveillance by the CIA. It was fun having that as a resistant to the characters and to infuse small moments and suspicions between these three main players; Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson, and working that group dynamic of status within the intelligence organization. It was almost like working in theater.
It was a very different kind of challenge. When I shot Ryan and Denzel it was like running after a story that’s moving along as you make it, and I shot it chronologically. It was about the dynamics of how you create your shots and what you’re really focusing on was very different. It was fun to have two different ways of making the movie.
Earlier you mentioned the “Bourne” movies and the spy film genre. One thing about “Safe House” is that the action and execution feels a lot more authentic and grounded than a lot of other espionage films. There aren’t any super-gadgets and or secret headquarters. What kind of research was done to maintain that level of realism?
We had a contact who was a former CIA agent that has run about 6 safe houses around the world, several of them in Latin America, and is a highly decorated CIA operative. He had actually done the kind of work we were depicting and in the beginning I mostly used him for practical stuff on how they would actually do things. What kind of equipment do they keep in the safe house? How are the locks set up? What kind of a location do they pick for a safe house? That’s why the safe house in the film is set up in a hospital area, because he told us they pick buildings that have had some kind of function that works well for what they’ll need. We found a house that had been a hospital and created a safe house in there because our expert said that was something they’d do because they could use the rooms and operating tables as needed.
Our contact very closely monitored our set up, but what was really interesting as we went along was finding out how he’d had it as a CIA operative. Finding out how that life had affected his personality and what he believed in, the stuff he’d been forced to do that, everything in his body told him was wrong and not ethical and yet, still, doing that and believing that he has to do it for his country. Doing it all for the better good. It’s really odd work from that perspective, some people can live with that and others just get broken down by performing those actions.
Part of why I invested so much when I saw the movie is because it felt like something that could be happening right now, and there’s something very relevant about the conflict surrounding the sharing of classified information. Do you think there’s a specific message the film sends about that?
I just think we’re at an interesting place in history because we have a perspective of ourselves as living in a democratic society, and we have to make a decision: should we allow the government and those that we elect as responsible for us to make these decisions without letting us know what’s really going on and why, or do we claim the rights to know what kind of world we’re really living in and what people are really doing in the world around us? It’s the whole WikiLeaks issue, and there’s no judgement on that in the film, but we have to make a decision. Are these actions constitutional? Are they right? Do we have the right to understand the world we live in? The right to all the information regarding why our governments are making the decisions that they are? If we say “No, I think it’s better that they take that responsibility and I don’t want to know” then that’s fine. But, if we don’t think that, then we have to create the change in how that information is handled.
That’s the place we’re in right now, we think we have the capability to get every piece of information and we don’t. We don’t know what’s going on behind the closed curtain. If we want to say we live in a free democratic society, we should be able to find out whatever we want to.
We really appreciate your taking the time to speak with us, before we close, can you tell us what project we can look forward to seeing from you next?
I don’t have any, man (laughs). I just wrapped “Safe House,” like, three weeks ago. Right now I’m just looking forward to going back to Sweden, going to my favorite coffee place and taking shit from my director friends. It’s good to take shit from the people who really know you, it keeps you sane.